Pilot Profile: Taff Smith

Co-owner of Breighton’s Real Aeroplane Company, Taff Smith has made his mark on British Aviation.

The day before an aircraft had nosed over when one of its wheels fell into a hole in the taxiway ? a hole left by a runway light that had been stolen the night before. Now the Instrument Landing System was on the blink ? not ideal for one of the most difficult approaches in the world, and in poor weather conditions to boot. That left the PAPI lights.

“As I descended, on what I could see from the instruments was a nice and tidy three-degree glideslope, the lights stayed exactly the same: four whites. And they did so all the way to the ground.”

Misleading approach angle indication lights are not what you need when you’ve been at the stick for over fifteen hours, but then if anyone can handle the stress of landing at Abuja airport in Nigeria under such conditions it is Tony ‘Taff’ Smith.

Smith, as many of you will guess from the location, was landing at Abuja on the first leg of his Southend to Cape Town and return record attempt ? a flight that started on 19 October 2010 and ended in disappointment less than 24 hours later at Windhoek.

HENSHAW’S 1939 RECORD ATTEMPT

Just over two years later, Smith and I are sitting in the Real Aeroplane Club’s cosy and friendly clubhouse on Breighton Airfield near Selby in Yorkshire. The weather is glorious and on the apron in front of the Real Aeroplane Company’s hangars are the Percival Mew Gull in which Alex Henshaw set the 1939 record and the Glasair IIRG in which Taff attempted to beat it. I can think of few aircraft in the world that I would more like to own than the Henshaw Mew Gull – I would value it over any warbird. The only problem is that I wouldn’t have the skill to fly it, or more to the point, land it.

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Like many of us, Taff Smith grew up reading the exploits of Amy Johnson, Francis Chichester, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and, of course, Alex Henshaw. Smith’s father flew Lancasters in a pathfinder squadron. Tragically he was killed in an accident when Taff was only eleven years old. Worse, the youngster’s mother had died when he was only two, so his grandparents brought him up. “Like many kids of my age I was obsessed with model aircraft and spent all my time building them. In the mid sixties I won a flying scholarship to Cranwell, but unfortunately I’m short sighted so was unable to go through to flight training.” Smith subsequently joined the RAF Regiment, where his job was to protect the country’s nuclear weapons.

Taff left the RAF in 1972 and set up a foam packaging company (which his son, Jeremy runs today). Sixty-seven this year, Smith didn’t learn to fly until 1985 – which if you do the maths puts him at 39 when he finally got his wings. Like this writer, he’s a late starter. That, however, is where the similarities between Smith and Goodwin flying careers end. I thought the flight in my Luscombe from Maidenhead to Bergerac a few months after the ink on my licence was dry was fairly gung-ho, but Smith had slightly wider horizons in mind.

Sat in the back of one of the RAC’s hangars is a bright yellow Bücker Jungmann, registered G-TAFF. Smith’s first aircraft was a PA-18 Super Cub, but it was soon followed by this immaculate Jungmann (one of three Jungmanns and three Jungmeisters that Smith has owned). In late 1988 the Bücker was dismantled and put in a container on a ship bound for Australia. In April 1989 the aircraft was back in one piece and ready for adventure at Darwin airport. First task: the 600 mile crossing of the Timor Sea. “The great advantage of doing the most challenging, and scary, bit first [as opposed to starting out from the UK and crossing a familiar and safe European land mass first] is that you know it’s behind you and that you’ve met the greatest challenge already.” Taff Smith’s crossing of the Timor Sea certainly proved his ability. With no navigation instruments other than a compass and a stopwatch, he arrived in Indonesia only fifteen miles off track. Over water that’s seriously accurate flying, as I’m sure that many of Smith’s heroes would have agreed.

On flew Smith and his yellow Jungmann, navigating using a long strip of 100,000:1 map that he’d created by chopping numerous aviation charts into strips and sticking them together. “When I’d flown a section I’d just tear it off and chuck it out the side,” he explains. “It was impressive when I laid the whole thing on the floor before setting off because you could see how the line curved.” (The shortest distance between points on the surface is of course a great circle route, and it is only on long flights that the necessary changes in heading become apparent.)

Unfortunately the self-made strip map didn’t include India, so Smith bought an atlas and tore the relevant page out of it. Not surprisingly he eventually got lost en route from Calcutta to Nagpur. “I landed on a road, blowing up a massive cloud of dust. Within seconds a huge crowd appeared and I was worried that they’d tear the aeroplane to bits. Fortunately a policeman turned up and beat them off with his stick. I asked him for directions to Nagpur and he just pointed up the road and said ‘That way’, so that’s the way I went.”

Naturally, Taff had to have a look in the record books on his return and, sure enough, he’s beaten the record from Darwin to Southampton for class C1b aircraft.

A name in the record books doesn’t tell the whole story. Smith planned the whole trip himself without the help of the Internet. What’s more, he wasn’t a young and free adventurer: he was a father of three small children. (On reflection, this marks Mrs Smith out as someone pretty special, too.)

“The highlight of the trip,’ explains Taff, “was flying along the Nile from Luxor up to Alexandria. Such a feeling of freedom and that has never left me. I’d feel it now if I went for a short flight today.”

CAPE TOWN FLIGHT PROBLEMS

The lack of landing aids at Abuja was only the start of Smith’s problems on the Cape Town flight. He’d refuelled, but immediately after takeoff the Glasair’s IO-360 began to run rough, with temperatures deeply in the red. “Up until then the engine had been running like a turbine,” he says. “The Glasair was really the only choice of aircraft if I wanted to break the record by such a margin that it would be very difficult for anyone to beat it in the future. An RV wouldn’t have been fast enough and the Glasair can also lift almost its own weight. By the time our team at the RAC ? and specifically Ian Moss ? had finished with her she’d cruise at around 200mph burning between 25 and 27 litres per hour. In fact, our average ground speed ? and that’s all that counts on a record flight ? from Southend to Abuja was 199mph.” [In 1939, Alex Henshaw achieved an average airspeed of 209.44mph ? Ed]

It turned out that the fuel uploaded in Nigeria was dodgy. Smith and his team have never been able to get to the bottom of it (thank to evasive paperwork tactics by those involved), but obviously what was meant to be avgas was actually avgas mixed with dodgy car fuel ? or simply dodgy car fuel.

The tale of how Taff negotiated two serious cumulo-nimbus storm clouds, of how he lost all his electrics apart from the handheld Garmin sat-nav and how badly the engine was running makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “There wasn’t the time to be frightened,” he says, “all I could do was concentrate on maintaining attitude and ignore everything else.” Knowing that the return flight was now impossible, Taff made the sensible decision to land at Windhoek and call it a day.

Yes, his attempt had failed. But then so did many flights taken by the pioneers. Steve Noujaim had beaten the Henshaw record a few months before with an equally heroic flight. “The major difference between my attempt and Alex Henshaw’s,” explains Smith, “is our ages. Henshaw was a young man when he made his flight whereas being in your sixties is not ideal.” Would Taff Smith give it another go? “Only if someone else did all the organising and picked up the bills. I reckon it took a year out of my life planning it and cost around £30,000. If someone rang and told me that the aircraft was ready to go and all arrangements for good quality fuel had been made and all I had to do was turn up and fly the aeroplane, then I would.”

Smith will eventually sell the Glasair, as it’s not really his sort of aeroplane and was only bought for the record attempt. “Before I sell it, I have to break the Lands End to John O’Groats record. On one of my practice flights I smashed the reverse leg of that journey. There are also a few European records that I’d like to break.”

While I’m snapping away with the camera taking advantage of the lovely light, Ian Moss wheels out Smith’s latest purchase: an Elva Formula Junior racing car. Historic motor racing is his latest passion, which he does with son Jeremy who has a background in serious motor racing. The two also own the unique six-wheel March 240 Formula One car. Racing old cars is a new challenge, but there’s no sign of Smith’s love for aviation dying.

As we sit in the clubhouse Smith dictates an amazing list of aircraft that he’s owned, some on his own and some with his friend and business partner Robert Fleming (who owns Breighton). A Mustang, Spitfire, three Nanchangs and an L39 Albatros jet. The latter was only put down on Breighton’s hard taxiway after experiments at North Weald to see just how short the jet could pull up after landing. Smith also flew the Albatros in a Bond film. No aircraft have a more permanent place in Taff’s heart than the Bückers. “I’ve got about 2,000 hours flight time,” he says, “and half of that is in Buckers” ? real aeroplanes flown and loved by a real flier from a real airfield. Indeed, a rack in the hangar contains two sets of wings for a Sopwith Pup that the RAC is currently building.

ONE LAST HIDDEN TREASURE

There’s plenty to see here, a flight into Breighton is highly recommended. However, it could be a while before I’m invited back because I am leaving the premises in disgrace. Taking a large oil drum for the hangar rubbish bin, I throw my sandwich wrapper and a packet of dead Duracell batteries into it. Unfortunately the receptacle has been mis-indentified and is fact the storage bin for the immaculate parts of a hen’s-teeth rare and hugely valuable 1914 Gnome Rhône rotary engine. “It’s going to take ages to get the batteries out of the bottom of it,” moans Ian Moss.